Auden's Memorial for the City

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001
21 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)



1. Introduction: A Concise History of the “City” Motive

2. Analysis of Basic Themes in Memorial for the City
2.1.The Introduction to the Poem
2.1.1. The Title 4-5 2.1.2. The Epigraph by Juliana of Norwich
2.2. Section I: Different Views on the World
2.2.1. The Naturalistic World of Homer
2.2.2. The War and the Camera
2.2.3. The Christian View: Redemption of the “Post-Virgilian City”
2.3. Section II: A Brief History of “Cities”
2.3.1. The “New City”
2.3.2. The “Sane City” and its Counterpart: The “Sinful City”
2.3.3. The Secular City
2.3.4. The “Rational City”
2.3.5. The “Glittering City” and the “Conscious City”
2.4. Section III: The Post-War, “Abolished City”
2.4.1. The Barbed Wire: Destruction and Division of Civilizations
2.4.2. The Image behind the Mirror: “Hope” and “Flesh”
2.5. Section IV: Redemption via the Body
2.5.1. The Voice of the Flesh: Examples of Weakness
2.5.2. Metropolis Fated: Rejection of Present Order and a Prophecy

3. Conclusions: Problematic Concepts and Open Questions

4. References

1. Introduction: A Concise History of the City Motive

The origins of a critical view on the focal points of civilizations may be traced back in history very far. Perfect examples of ancient critique on urban life may be found in the Old Testament, e.g. the depiction of the civilizations of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah. The metaphorical content of these examples seems fairly clear: the reader is confronted with societies that either directly challenge the authority of God or don’t follow his Commandments and are therefore punished by a divine father figure, which restores the natural and spiritual order. However, from the beginning, the city motive may also be seen as well as a means of discourse on mankind’s cultural and social output. But modern city poetry is of course different from the ancient accounts of God’s wrath, which lead to catastrophes for one city or the other. Its roots are to be found in the works of major eighteenth century poets, e.g. William Blake’s London, in which he seems to recognize a new form of disorder being at work within the city limits. The nineteenth century brought forth poets like Wordsworth, who carried on to work on the theme but showed a different attitude towards the city. Because of its ever growing dimension, it was then perceived as a totally new and symbolic phenomenon, which raised philosophical questions about the state of society and the poet’s role within this complex. The tone of the responses to these questions was for the most part uncertain and personal. Finally,the twentieth century gave birth to a new kind of urban literature and poetry, with a symbolic meaning of the city motive, which was as varied as the ethnical, religious, social and political shades of the human community it referred to. Nevertheless, two tendencies may be observed within modern poetry and prose, the first one dealing with the content of the city symbol: “ ‘When the city ceases to be a symbol of art and order,’ writes Lewis Mumford, ‘it acts in a negative fashion: it expresses and helps to make more universal the fact of disintegration.’“[1] The second one is the mode major poets such as T.S. Eliot in his famous The Waste Land attempt to cope with the reality of the twentieth century city: a controlling framework of myth, literature and history is employed in order to deal with the chaotic nature of their theme. Both points are to some extent true particularly for Auden’s later works. In what he seems unique is his intention to create an “idea” of place instead of directly referring to one or the other reality of a city. “Auden attempts to establish the “idea” of a city as something that can be poetically separated from its physical existence.”[2] In the poems of the 1930’s which focus on real places the “idea” consists in the combination of different aspects of a city and a concluding judgement on it. Dover 1937 may be seen as a perfect example of this structure:

Steep roads, a tunnel through chalk downs, are the approaches;

A ruined pharos overlooks a constructed bay;

The sea-front is almost elegant; all the show

Has, inland somewhere a vague and dirty root:

Nothing is made in this town.[3]

This “idea” of place is even further abstracted by Auden. It is shaped into a concept, which may either be employed to describe any typical twentieth century metropolis or to depict a visionary yet not totally unworldly form of human community. An example of the latter one is Auden’s “Just City”. It occurs in poems as different as Spain 1937 and New Year Letter and is to be seen as a product of his then political idealism. Later on he develops other such “ideas”, e.g. “the moderate Aristotelian city” in For the Time Being. To analyse such concepts and illumine basic themes in Memorial for the City shall be the predominant task the author of this paper tries to fulfil.

2. Analysis of Basic Themes in Memorial for the City

2.1. The Introduction to the Poem

Already the introduction to the poem, the title and the epigraph by Juliana of Norwich, gives the recipient food for thought. Although at first glance its basic content seems rather clear, some questions may appear after having read and re-read the whole body of the poem, e.g. Why is a memorial erected? For what city? What is the connection between the epigraph, the title and the poem? In the following passage I will try to offer some possible answers to these crucial questions.

2.1.1. The Title

The riddling title of the poem, constructed of the two fairly neutral terms “Memorial” and “City” is not easy to understand. “Memorial” here seems to be employed as a nominal means of depicting the basic reason for the artist to write his poem. Per definition a memorial is there to remind people of something which is gone. The object to remind us of is the “City”. But what is meant by this term is not easy to be revealed. Auden seems to have in mind what I’ve already indicated in my introduction: an abstraction or “idea” of human community. In fact, the poem offers various such “ideas”. So, the question is: Which one does he refer to in the title? Basically, there are arguments for two different readings. The first and more indirect one may be seen in the concept that the whole body of past “ideas”, whether they are morally good or not, constitute a present one, which would not be as it is without its historical stages of development. Following this string of thought, the “Memorial” is erected in order to remind people of the history of the “City”.

In support of this reading it could be said that one of the major sources of influence on Auden was Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s oeuvre. Particularly his overview of European history entitled Out of Revolution seems to have had a strong impact on the artist. In a step by step movement, Rosenstock-Huessy tried to reconstruct the history of the European revolutions, which brought about major shifts in human history and lead to crucial changes in society. He tried to show that by continually questioning the structure of the human community, linear progress had been made and an ever new, more reasonable view on reality had been reached. The second possibility of reading is connected with the epigraph by Juliana of Norwich, with the “City” meaning St. Augustine’s concept of “the City of God”. If this is intended by Auden, then why does he, who by the time he wrote the poem had already converted to the Roman Catholic faith, erect a “Memorial” for a religious “idea”? Does he believe it to be past and gone? A fairly obvious reason could be seen in the possibility that Auden believes his present to be influenced exclusively by secular, utilitarian and technocratic concepts and therefore tries to remind his contemporaries of an “idea” which may transcend the historical reality of time and place. Within this context, a more complex reading is linked to a particular notion of historic time, which consists in a close relationship between past and future. The “Memorial”, in itself a historical “event”, forces the recipient into an act of memory. “Liberating the past from the future is contradicted, as such, by memory itself: for the past has been constantly imbued, and even haunted by the spectre of the future.”[4] Or, as Walter Benjamin put it in his Angelus Novus: “History is an angel moving backwards into the future.”[5] In other words, to be occupied with the past, to move back, means automatically having to deal with the future, to move forth. In fact, the last line of Auden’s poem resembles very much a prophecy: “; but I shall rise again to hear her judged.”[6] Thus, Auden offers the possibility that the impact of the idea of the ”City of God” transforms a given future.

2.1.2. The Epigraph by Juliana of Norwich

Juliana of Norwich, English mystic of the fourteenth century and Benedictine nun, is the author of The Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, the source of Auden’s epigraph. According to her, she wrote her tract after having received a serious of visions in 1373. Her work resembles a meditation on these revelations, an attempt to reach for their core. The fundamental beliefe in the world existing only because of God’s infinite love, is the basis for her book. In so far, she has very much in common with other mystics of her times. The remarkable point in her studies is that she shows little of the dualism of body and soul that is frequent with her scholarly contemporaries. According to her, God is to be found in the bodily part as well as in the spiritual part of man. Since an important theme in Auden’s poem is the relation of the physical and the spiritual part of the human being, the epigraph seems to be rather telling:

In the self-same point that our soul is

Made sensual, in the self-same point is the

City of God ordained to him from without


St. Augustine’s “idea”, here referred to by Juliana, consists in a fundamental opposition between the “City of God”, i.e. the community of those committed to the Christian faith, and the “Earthly City”, i.e. the community of the pagans. The “City of God” is neither situated in heaven nor as a particular place on earth, but refers to the society of the “good” on earth. The unity of this community needs no outward signs, for it is felt in the heart of each of its members. Within the epigraph, a temporal aspect is added to St. Augustine’s concept. Though the point of view of Juliana is certainly different from Heidegger’s, her phrase “from without beginning” seems to resemble his “Once-for-all”. In Heidegger’s work, the context of his phrase is “that nature can take the place of the divine being-in-itself, which manifests itself in the once-for-all of historical time.”[8] For Auden, the sense of this phrase is completely different and derives from Rosenstock-Huessy: “ ‘In the cyclic, pagan view of History, there is nothing new under the sun; everything we do has happened before, will happen again; nothing of any permanent value is achieved; there is only change, without beginning or end. Christianity, on the contrary, has shown how man can be eternal in the moment, how he can act once for all.’“[9] For Auden, the temporal aspect in the epigraph means an everlasting, divine moment, which is created when kairos and logos are fused (cf. Auden’s Kairos and Logos, 1941).

Most probably the artist first came across the lines by Juliana of Norwich when reading Charles William’s The Descent of the Dove. In the 1966 Collected Shorter Poems Auden added a dedication to his memory, for Williams had been one of the various influences on him.

2.2. Section I: Different Views on the World

In the first part of the poem Auden confronts the reader with two different views on the world: the Christian and the naturalistic point of view. The reader is faced with the present state of the city, which is compared to a past stage of development. What is connected with this, is the relation of nature and history. For most of this section, Auden employs irregular, unrhymed verse, probably in order to show the inherent disconnectedness of pagan worldviews. However, the last to lines of each part show an end-rhyme. They resemble a summary of what has been indicated in the given part.


[1] Johnston (1984: 246).

[2] Johnston (1984: 232).

[3] Johnston (1984: 230-231).

[4] Bernardini,P. “Nostalgia for the Future. Time Past and the Construction of Europe“<http://> Feb.25th .

[5] Bernardini, P. <http://> Feb.25th .

[6] Auden, Selected Poems (Mendelson ed. 1979: 195).

[7] Auden (1979: 190).

[8] Mendelson (1999: 317).

[9] Mendelson (1999: 317).

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Auden's Memorial for the City
University of Regensburg  (Faculty for Literature and Cultural Studies)
Hauptseminar: W.H. Auden
2,0 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
466 KB
Auden, Memorial, City, Hauptseminar
Quote paper
Andreas Seidl (Author), 2001, Auden's Memorial for the City, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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